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The need for accountability-by-default in public institutions

By Ghui

The attitude of Singaporeans towards the hitherto unchallenged authority of government bodies or government affiliated bodies are going through a seismic shift. With the advent of technological advances, inter-connectivity and stronger contrarian voices, more and more Singaporeans have begun to question practices that they deem improper, where previously they would have accepted whatever these bodies said as the gospel truth.

I see this as a positive step in the right direction. While this behaviour may appear perplexing to the powers that be, Singaporeans are merely trying to re-engage a system where they have been muted for far too long. In the past, it was easier to dismiss anyone who may challenge the status quo. With the government controlled mainstream media suppressing any "salacious" content, it was much easier to keep any unwanted information under wraps. Now that anyone can access information over the Internet, this process of control is no longer as effective.

nussuThe latest incident where a lack of accountability is being alleged vis-a-vis a government body relates to the National University of Singapore (NUS), whereby a student has alleged that the NUS Student Union (NUSSU) has not been transparent in relation to its financial accounts.

Not being a numbers person by trade, I will not dwell on the rightness or wrongness of this accusation. That said, NUSSU's response to this has been less than satisfactory. While I applaud its decision to engage and respond, it has labelled an act of whistle blowing as "less-than-good-faith acts". Surely, that is a swipe that is unprofessional and unnecessary?

The student, Mr Teo Yu Sheng, has taken his version of events public and NUSSU has every right to refute his allegations by similarly publishing their own version. While NUSSU can vehemently disagree with Mr Teo's version of events, they seem to imply that Mr Teo is somehow morally wrong in his conduct.

Although NUS is an autonomous university, it is still regarded as a government body given that it receives significant public funds annually. NUSSU is an extension of that body, and it would also appear that the claims by NUSSU’s vice-president, Mr Shermon Ong, indicate that much of the finances of NUSSU are managed by NUS's Office of Financial Services.

Surely then, a public body ought to be one hundred percent accountable to the public? So, since when has publicly questioning how a public institution spends its money become a "less-than-good-faith" act?

Public bodies exist to serve the public. They are funded by the public and need to justify how it spends the money given to it by the public. It is therefore surprising that NUSSU has accused Mr Teo of not acting in good faith when all he has done is openly question their figures backed up by his analysis.

If they disagree, they should just stick to the facts and present their own evidence. Resorting to name calling and character assassination is therefore unprofessional and downright childish.

Their statement also goes to the core of how they – and to a large extent, many government bodies – seem to believe that any question of their authority is an irritant. It is that dismissive air that truly rankles.

“Normally, we would not dignify such less-than-good-faith acts with a response. However, since Mr Teo’s post touches on a subject-matter that goes straight to the core of good governance and accountability, we will therefore publish a full-fledged response to his allegations and aspersions to assure the student body that the NUSSU Exco is transparent in our finances. Problematic definition of transparency Mr Teo’s allegations and aspersions rest on a simple premise – as 87% of the Union finances are classified under “Other incomes” and “Other expenditures”, the Union is not transparent in its finances.”

This basically encapsulates the sentiment of disdain – that somehow any question by an individual that dares challenge the system is not dignified and does not deserve a response. Mr Teo had every right as a member of the public to question NUS and how it manages the finances of NUSSU. It is a matter of public interest, if not to Singaporeans at large, then the NUS student body.

The onus is on NUSSU to respond, even if it means on behalf of NUS, to clarify Mr Teo’s doubts, not call then irrelevant. But the quality of the response by NUSSU leaves much to be desired – again, not in the content generated, but the attitude towards the issue raised.

“Mr Teo’s definition of transparency is problematic. He measures transparency according to the state of affairs only. If you do not meet a single threshold, you are not transparent, notwithstanding any other matters, circumstances or context that may explain that state of affairs.

Our definition of transparency is more nuanced. Transparency primarily entails a state of mind. Whether someone is transparent or not is really a matter of that person’s subjective intentions. A certain state of affairs may suggest that person’s intention to be transparent or not, but it is not conclusive. His/her intention to be transparent is the determinative factor.”

How can transparency be primarily a “state of mind”? International rankings on transparency are done to measure the level of corruption in a nation, some in which Singapore has scored quite highly. Would NUSSU like us to believe that the lack of corruption in Singapore is actually just a state of mind?

Surely there must be an objective standard to transparency: Should this information have been disclosed? Has it been disclosed, and why not? These are the questions that should be asked rather than delving into the uncontrollable territory of “state of mind”.

It is rather alarming that NUSSU, as part of a public body, is openly suggesting that transparency is somehow subjective and dependent on a person's state of mind. How then is there any means of regulating it and ensuring that it is not mismanaged? Why discredit and dismiss queries from concerned individuals?

Worse yet, as an incubator for the future leaders of our nation, is this the mindset that NUS wants to perpetuate among its student population?